Capitol Steps Fever Hits the Pabst Theater

The comedy troupe, including former D.C. staffers, skewers farcical Washington.

By - Sep 16th, 2014 10:50 am
Elaina Newport.

Elaina Newport.

If you think the news coming out of Washington is too ludicrous to be taken seriously, you’ve caught the Capitol Steps fever. The chance to ridicule the Beltway in skits and musical parodies has kept the comedy troupe out front in the political mirth parade for more than three decades and 34 albums. This election year is a feast, and not just for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  Capitol Steps laid much of the highway for them and still relishes its own endless opportunities for equal opportunity ridicule.

However, “It has changed a bit,” said Elaina Newport between her natural outbursts of giggles. A  founder of Capitol Steps when she was an aide to Sen. Charles Percy (“I started out writing as an egg,” she jokes) and still a main writer and performer, she recalled in a phone interview when the cordial atmosphere allowed the troupe to do a skit about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in the presence of both, to mutual laughter from the president in one party and the House Speaker in the other.

It’s hard, she concedes, to see the same thing happen with Ted Cruz and Nancy Pelosi. “The kidding was good natured in the past,” she said. ”We joke and laugh as hard now, and skewer both sides, but the sense of congeniality around town isn’t the same.”

The touring company brings its updated inventive poke-in-the-ribs-athon to the Pabst Theater for one performance at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19. This article won’t give away any punchlines.

“Oh we can hint a bit,” said Newport, who will be performing in D.C. that weekend since the company of more than two dozen is now so popular that they split up for simultaneous national travel squads (at least five performers and a pianist in each) in the middle of regular D.C. capitol stepping.

They work round the clock and by cross-country email to keep topics and parodies fresh. For song parodies, “What a gift is YouTube,” said Newport. “We know how to work fast,” recalling when the new pope was named, Capitol Steps had a skit onstage almost as the white smoke cleared (inevitably, when they learned his home country, it was a rapid parody of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”).  Even now they have ISIS and other Mideast uproars constantly being updated and refined. When I interviewed her and other company members in D.C. September 10, they were putting finishing touches on a song parody you might just hear Sept. 19 about the new Apple Watch.

Brian Ash.

Brian Ash.

Learning that watch song when I interrupted for a phone chat was Brian Ash, better known to Steps aficionados as Dick Cheney. Or Harry Reid, or Chris Christie, or Bill Clinton and “so many characters I can’t keep count,” he laughed.

Ash always looks forward to the annual Milwaukee gig, since he spent his youth wearing a cheesehead and recalls first trodding the boards at the Pabst in a high school theater festival. A Whitefish Bay High grad in the 1980s, he will spend the weekend here catching up with relatives in Fox Point.

Many in the touring troupes, to avoid North and South partisan battles, don’t reveal their states of origin as readily as Ash did. The company’s own origins have become the stuff of legend  – a bunch of congressional staffers putting together a Christmas party in 1981 and discovering they were quite talented in comedy. Today, half the company still consists of people who worked on the Hill and half were added from the D.C. area for their talents and humor. “In the 1990s we gave up insisting on working for Congress as a condition of membership,” said Newport, “but the motor is much the same. Originally we were all actually making fun of the people we worked for – and now we’re so established that we don’t have to worry about keeping the day job.”

She also senses that live humor seems to be enjoying  a comeback. There is something special about actual people onstage playing people in the headlines that makes jokes, particularly topical political ones, even more immediate and unpredictable than TV shows or social media. “Sure hope so,” said Ash.

Their satire, clean but full of innuendo, along with the lightning speed of their topics and delivery, have made them a national treasure. You can hear their parodies online, catch excerpts  from their latest album, “How to Succeed in Congress Without Really Lying,” play the backwards tongue-twisting game they started three decades ago, known as Lirty Dies, listen to regular appearances on national TV and radio, or step up to the fresh surprises and surefire skits they are bringing to the Pabst.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.

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